The Benevolent Lie

February 11, 2010

For all prospective PhD applicants, this article bears reading. Lucky as I feel to have the job I have, I know many exceptionally talented and driven academics who are never so smiled upon. A taste of what it’s like:

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.

Prospective grad students, undergrads, parents, friends of the afflicted… take heed. Your misery keeps the rest of us feeling powerful.

We make our admissions decisions in the next few weeks. Best to know what awaits you. Do yourselves a favor and read the whole piece, including the very, very long set of comments.


  1. I checked out his 2009 piece… this was a gem:

    “One probably could not devise a better system for keeping people with humanistic values away from power than by confining them to decade-long graduate programs with a long future of transient adjunct positions making less than the minimum wage.”

    And, I will add, anywhere from 30-100K of debt.

  2. Ben, I seriously think you should assign this to class, or at least announce it. Great stuff… so you agree? oh-oh

  3. I’m not sure I totally agree, actually. I think there’s a lot to be said for the life of the mind; and I think there’s a lot to be said for the autonomy of students. I just think it helps to be moderately realistic about job prospects following a PhD. The comments section is really helpful for this, as there is representation there from many sides.

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